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The Five Remembrances

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

What do you want to carry when you go?

Image courtesy of adobestock

As this world spirals out of control, as the climate changes, destroying life forms of all kinds, worldwide, as hatred grows and kindness shrinks, as food and water become more scarce every day— it’s a mandate of mine to revisit the Five Remembrances. These are from a Buddhist sacred text called Upajjhatthana Sutta.

They form what might sound like really terrible news for the untrained ear. I mean, bummer after bummer.

But the truth is, these form the pathway to liberation itself. Here they are, loosely translated:

  1. I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape old age.

  2. I am of the nature to grow ill. I cannot escape sickness.

  3. I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death.

  4. I will be separated from everything and everyone I hold dear.

  5. My only true possessions are my actions.

Puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it.

The first one helps me relax about my changing shape and energy level as I age. I can stop beating myself up, or working myself into the ground to fool everyone into thinking I’m 45. It’s like, ahhh. I can be 62. It’s ok. This is life living itself through me.

The second one lessens our suffering when we do fall ill. We get a cold, or the flu. Or something scarier, maybe. I’ve been through lyme disease. I suffered a very serious nervous breakdown. I’ve had chronic bronchitis. When we’re born in a human body, we are probably going to be sick in some small or big way, at some point in our lifespan. It’s ok. This is part of life living itself through us.

The third one. Boy oh boy. We live in such denial of that one. Every day, we move around like we’re going to live forever. Ages to go. But the truth is, I could be hit by a truck today. How does it look when you think about that one? Do you feel a shift? It’s important to just remember it every now and then. We don’t have to go around using the grim reaper as our screensaver. But have coffee with that guy every now and then. Know that death is built into the program. That way, we won’t waste so much of our lives trying to outsmart it.

Remembrance number four. We will be separated from everything and everyone we hold dear. Without exception. Either because they change, they die, or we change or we die. It’s all going away. But this is not cause for sadness. This is cause for unconditional appreciation. Joy. If you know it’s going away soon, how much more do you enjoy your time with someone? If a freaky messenger from the future came and told you, “This is the very last time you’ll see him. He’s going to die in his sleep tonight,” how important would the petty irritations still be?

And remembrance number five. The only thing we own is what we do. The only things I can take with me, when I go, are my actions. If I hold this in my heart every morning, it sets the tone for my day in a way that nothing else can. Once I know I’m going to grow old, I’m going to get sick, I’m going to die, and I’m for sure going to be separated from everything and everyone I love…what’s left? My actions.

Everything I do carries weight. Everything I do matters. But not in that oppressive sense of Everything-Will-Be-My-Fault-If-It-Goes-Wrong. It’s more like everything I do comes front loaded with consequences. And, since I’m going to carry them with me, I get to choose what they are.

So say I’m on my way out the door of this life, having lost everything — youth, beauty, the car, the home, my wife, my children, my friends, my music, my yoga mats, my books, my clothes, my sanity, my ability to keep from soiling myself— I’ve lost it all. And I’m on my way out, but I get to take…everything I’ve done. Everything I’ve said. Seeing it like this gives me an intimate relationship with my actions that shapes how I live in the moment.

I want to bring this kindness with me. I want to have that specific, expressed compassion in my luggage. I want to tuck that one thing I did for my friend in the side pocket. I want to make sure to pack that particular morning of spaciousness I offered my spouse so she could just be who she is, unimpeded. That’s what I want to carry.

Not the yelling, the gossip, the thoughtless sarcasm, the lying, the betrayals large and small, the turning away and not caring. (Well, I may not want to carry it with me, but it's all going in the bag when I go. So, make sure you're packing smart, is all I'm saying.)

Think about it.


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